The defining moment of Tuesday’s student demonstration against cuts in education funding and rises in university costs came in the late afternoon, when riot police bungled an attempt to clear a large group of school kids from the base of Nelson’s Column, leaving two of them at the top of the steps, out of their reach, waving a banner that read, ‘I can’t believe it’s not Thatcher’ while another, standing at the sidelines jeered, ‘This is what a police state looks like!’
There was a bit more friction to come: Police and protestors formed another stand-off around the column; a couple of bottles smashed against plastic shields; a 10-year-old girl in a red valour tracksuit ran in and out of the police shouting ‘Killing the fucking pigs! Kill the fucking pigs!’ and someone took a piss on the other side of the square.
A few minutes beforehand, however, I’d been ready to pack it all in. When I initially arrived in Trafalgar Square, things were mute. It had been snowing all day, but none of it had settled and the few hundred protestors that were left dancing to bongos by riot vans looked enthusiastic but also cold, wet and thin on the ground. Now and again a few hyperactive guys began charging against that blockade, but none of it went anywhere. Earlier, I’d spent most of lunchtime fruitlessly tracking groups of marauding demonstrators across central London via their Twitter updates… By this point, I wanted to put a bullet in my head, but then bang: it kicked off.
Backing away, a 14 year-old boy called Jacob wearing balaclava asked me for cigarette and looked on at the column in general disgust. ‘We wanted to come down here today because of what happened in Whitehall last week,’ he said, referring to the second planned day of student demonstrations. ‘That was horrible, and it felt like we’d been denied our right to protest because they treated us like animals.’
And there is some truth in what Jacob had to say. If you examine closely the malevolent pettiness of some of these cuts, you’ll see this for yourself. On the one hand, the cost of a university education is being raised while on the other, funding for these institutions are being thrown out into the cold of night like an unwanted drunk at closing time. Elsewhere, negligible grants such as the Educational Maintenance Allowance, which pays students from poorer backgrounds the kings ransom of up to £30-a-week to help cover the cost of books and transport, have been axed in England altogether. Say what you like about the need to balance public spending during hard times, but this smacks far too much of vindictiveness to fall under the Great British idioms of fair play and common sense.
Then again, there is also an element of these demonstrations that’s equally worrying. Roughly divided, the student protestors fall into school children that will be directly affected by the cuts, and current undergraduate and postgraduate students (other parties not withstanding) that will not. And for the former group, these protests are as much a complaint about the perceived inequality in society that these cuts will precipitate, as they are about their rights to accrue wealth being shat on. They are, after all, still a generation that grew up with Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as prime ministers, so you’d have to be insane to believe that some of the rampant capitalism hadn’t worn off, even if it’s nowhere near the same scale as Nick Leeson. To some extent, this is a generation that’s being denied their birthrights, and they’re understandably not very pleased.
This is no fault of the kids, but of the continual paradox of neoliberal politics. Under Blair and Brown, New Labour removed a vast number of economic controls in the belief that the private sector would look after the interests and health of the private sector. As it turned out, the bankers and city boys just devoured each other like cannibals, which is why we’re living in a fragile economic state. Today, the coalition (following David Cameron’s forever-imminent ideology, The Big Society), believes that by cutting public spending, the private sector will recover and not just benefit society through the resultant financial prosperity but inexplicably pick up some of the public sector roles that are currently being axed. This is dishonest, and follows the same trajectory of thought in its subservience to the markets as New Labour’s philosophy. Public spending is really being cut because the nation is broke. To consider its consequence in terms of growth is a cynical, out right lie; the definitions of cause and effect, here, seemingly forgotten or confused by an administration that doesn’t know what it’s doing… something that students would do well to remember in the coming weeks.
Photography by Craig Thomas